Sunday, June 28, 2009

Schoolyard Rhymes

Some schoolyard rhymes that we've heard around the house recently. [Requires two people to alternate hand claps. Some special hand actions also necessary.]


I went to a Chinese restaurant
to buy a loaf of
bread, bread, bread

They wrapped it up in bubble-gum
and this is what I
said, said, said

My name is Chugga-chugga-choo-choo
I know karate
Punch in the body
Oops, I'm sorry
Don't tell my mummy

Criss cross, apple sauce


Inky pinky ponky
Farmer had a donkey
Donkey died
Farmer cried
Inky pinky ponky

I now declare that you are
not IT


Welcome to Macdonalds
Can I take your order?
Big Mac, curly fries
Milk shake, apple pie


Scooby Dooby Doo took a poo
Shaggy thought it was food
Shaggy took a bite
Said it was dynamite
Now that's the end of Shaggy-ee-ee
Cha cha cha

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Satire in Canadian Literature

This is a quest story. The grail being sought is knowledge about satire in Canadian literature. It starts where all quests start today – on Google.

I searched "satire in Canadian literature" and was surprised at the results.

An Australian children’s encyclopedia, for example, was the second most prominent link. Wikipedia also provides this underwhelming insight: "Satire is probably one of the main elements of Canadian literature."

The Australian article, on the other hand, began reasonably enough: "How to describe the literature of a nation is often debatable."

It then continued with what it called The Problem of Canadian Literature: "Canadian literature may be more difficult to discuss than most because of Canada's unique geographical and historical situation."

That is, Canada is big, young and "generally committed to multiculturalism."

Australian children were also tantilizingly told: "One recurringly important piece of the Canadian literature puzzle has been the question, Is there a Canadian literature at all?"

There followed a list of Traits of Canadian Literature, which looked strikingly similar to the Wikipedia disaster, though it startled with this:

Satire and irony: If Canadian literature had to be distilled into a single word, for the sake of comparison with all other literatures, that word would be "satire". Satire has jokingly been called Canada's national sport.

The article ended (helpfully?) by informing Aussie kiddies:

One of the earliest ‘Canadian’ writers virtually always included in Canadian literary anthologies is Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865), who died just two years before Canada's official birth.

One is reminded of Mordecai Richler’s praise of Frederick Philip Grove as "a good speller." In Geist 51, Stephen Henighan suggested Hugh Garner was the victim of Richler’s remark. Richler was known to recycle jokes, so both may be true.

Is there a Canadian literature? What intelligence exists about Canada’s national sport?


I pressed on, with the help of a variety of virtual Sancho Panzas. Using Facebook and email, I cast queries far and wide.

A sample of responses follow:

  • I haven't seen an article on satire in CanLit since about 1960. There might be something on individual authors like Richler or Leacock, but nothing general that I know about. It was a topic that I did some research on many, many years ago and there wasn't really much to go on--just a vague idea of a tradition running from Haliburton to Leacock to various 20th century writers, including poets like Smith, Scott, Klein, Birney, Layton, etc. And there was an anthology some years ago that Margaret Atwood had something to do with but other than that, I'm afraid I can't help you.
  • Didn't John Metcalf write something about this? And if not, why not try "Earnestness and Canadian Literature" for a much richer source list.
  • Canadian literary criticism shies away from satire. We're too busy lobbying the world to take our literature seriously. Having said that, there are fantastic Canadian satirists. The old guard -- Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, Steven Leacock -- tended to take on nationalist and identity questions. The middle guard -- Margaret Atwood, Russell Smith -- extended this discussion to contemporary urban settings. More recently a third guard -- e.g., Thomas King, Rabindranath Maharaj -- has brought cultural and race questions forward.
  • The Blasted Pine (1957)
  • Linda Hutcheon on parody and pastiche in The Canadian Postmodern (1988).
  • Do you have WH New's Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (2002) handy? Jennifer Andrew's article on 'Humour and Satire' gives some further sources: Margaret Atwood 'What's so funny? Notes on Canadian Humour'; Claude Bissell, 'Halburton, Leacock and the American Humourous Tradition.' in Canadian Literature 39 (1969); Tom Marshall 'Revisioning Comedy and History in the Canadian Novel.' blah blah blah, it goes on.
  • See also:
  • John Metcalf's (edited anthologies) Kicking Against the Pricks and The Bumper Book.
  • "Playing the fool: the satire of Canadian cultural nationalism in Mordecai Richler's The Incomparable Atuk." Morra, Linda. Studies in Canadian Literature. 2001. Vol. 26, Iss. 1; p. 1
  • "To know the difference: Mimicry, satire, and Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water." Horne, Dee. Essays on Canadian Writing. Toronto: Fall 1995. p. 255
Amy Lavender Harris pointed me to a chapter in her book to be published later this year:

In Imagining Toronto there's a chapter called "The Myth of the Multicultural City" arguing (in part) that satire is used to criticize cultural hegemonies in Toronto literature, applying Northrop Frye's description of satire as "militant irony" that challenges oppressive but unspoken social conventions.

I also went to Quill and Quire and searched "satire."

And did the same at Canadian Literature.

These results provided a richer, livelier commentary on Canadian literature than I’d expected.


My quest, however, wasn’t without its tilting at windmill moments.

My Google research uncovered an article by UNB’s Professor Jennifer Andrews: "Humour and Satire in Canadian Literature." Reader’s Encyclopaedia of Canadian Literature. Ed. W. H. New. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002. 679-89.

Off to the Toronto Public Library website I went, a trip that would lead nowhere. I used the library’s online help to see if I could shake loose the title. I received this response:

Subject: Re: ADULT - Ask a Librarian
Received: Wednesday, June 3, 2009, 12:04 PM

Hello Michael: thanks for using the Answerline Quick Reference

I'm sorry, the library does not carry this title.

To which I replied, "Is it possible to ask the library to order a copy?"

Subject: Re: ADULT - Ask a Librarian
Thursday, June 4, 2009 9:50 AM

Because of the complexities in selecting and ordering new materials for
the Library, it is always best to approach the staff at your local
branch and ask to fill out a "New English/French Title Suggestion" form
(popularly known as the blue form). You may also request materials
published in other languages, using the "New Multilingual Material
Selection" form.

After the form has been filled out in its entirety, the branch staff
will pass it along to the Library's Collection Development department
for consideration. If you've asked to be informed about your request's
eventual outcome, the local branch staff will contact you, not the
Collections Management department. You may also specify that you be
placed on the hold list for the item if it should be ordered.

Thankfully, this wasn’t necessary. The title of the article could be found in an encyclopedia of a different title: Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (2002).

Sunday, June 21, 2009

James Salter

"Why is the measure of love loss?" asked the narrator of Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body (Vintage, 1994).

I am grateful of Google for finding this for me. I have just finished James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime (Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 1967), and this is the question that floated to the top of my mind when I closed the book and set it on the table.

Why is the measure of love loss?

Earlier this year, Lisa Moore wrote an essay on A Sport and a Pastime for the Globe and Mail (April 9, 2009). She concluded with this:

Don't read [Salter's book] in your 40s: It will fill you with bittersweet regret for all the time you did not waste, for all the sport you might have missed.

For myself, I find this isn't true. I'm in my 40s and am not filled with bittersweet regret for time I failed to waste. Also, it seems to me that if I had read this book in my 20s, I think I'd have thought it was a book about needing the make the most of each moment. That only fleeting happiness is possible. (Lessons I learned from Hemingway, way back when....)

Now, I think it's a book about the measure of love: loss. And about certain poor choices.

As one character explains to his sister:

"What I'm saying may sound mystical, but in everybody, Ame, in all of us, there's the desire to find those elements somehow, to discover them, you know? Sometimes I think they're the same for all of us, but maybe they're not. I mean, we look at the Greeks and say, ah, they build a civilization, why can't each of us, properly directed, build a life, I mean a happy life? Believe me, the elements exist. When you enter certain rooms, when you look at certain faces, suddenly you realize you're in the presence of them. Do you know what I mean?"

"Of course, I do," she says. "If you could achieve that, you'd have everything."

"And without it you have . . ." he shrugs, "a life."

"Just like everybody's."

"I don't want that."

"Neither do I."

And yet, that's exactly what he chooses. And because the arc of this story is tragic, the loss that occurs is absolute.

I count three major losses (and, warning, I'm about to reveal major plot points).

The narrator and his friend, Dean, are young Americans in France. The back cover of my copy says the action takes place in the early-1960s. What action there is, is focused on a love affair between Dean and Anne-Marie. The action is often imagined by the narrator, who is filtering the story through his memories and fantasies and knowledge of what happens: Dean returns to America without Anne-Marie and dies in a highway accident.

The losses are:
  • Dean to Anne-Marie
  • Dean to the narrator
  • Anne-Marie to the narrator

The narrator presents a full-on love story between Dean and Anne-Marie, but he also makes clear that he loves Anne-Marie, too, and that he feels unworthy of her. He tells the story of Dean and Anne-Marie to remember it, to control it, to makes sense of it, to give it the best ending possible.

As for Anne-Marie, she lives in Troyes now, or did. She is married. I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evenings, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.

Is this irony we read here? Is Anne-Marie's provincial life to be desired? It is the life Dean turned away from when he decided to return to America alone. Or is the life of drifting fornicators to be preferred? That is the life of sport and pastime that fills most of the book (much of it pure speculation presented by the narrator in lovely, lilting, clear yet poetic prose).

The narrator, of course, achieves neither with Anne-Marie. His life of drifting pastime is full of quiet regret. He is incapable of love, incapable of stirring much interest in anyone else at all. That he can present the love affair with sweetness and a lack bitterness is remarkable.

Salter's choice to tell this story filtered through this hapless narrator is an interesting one. We remember the equally hapless Nick Carraway of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Another witness to a supposedly great love affair.

Both novels end with readers wistfully wondering about what might have been.

Why is the measure of love loss?

Jim Shepard's NYT review of Winterson's novel begins to explain why:

because, like Orpheus, the narrator looked back, out of fear and insufficient faith, and paid the price: the cursed position of having learned this wondrous new language only to see it go unfulfilled.

That works for A Sport and a Pastime, too.

Joni Mitchell put it another way: You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.


I'll add one final comment, which provides an added dimension. From

Like Salter's other novels, this book is a study in hero worship. Here the hero is not a fighter pilot ("The Hunters") or an alpine mountain climber ("Solo Faces") but a lover, whose intensely erotic affair with a young French woman is imagined by the novel's narrator, a casual friend who scarcely knows him. Phillip Dean (like a real-life counterpart James Dean) is in his twenties, good looking, intelligent, and with a fatal attraction to fast cars. (Dean Moriarty of Kerouac's "On the Road" also comes to mind.)

Comment by Ronald Scheer

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dany Laferrière

This review first appeared in Imprint (1993).

Dany Laferrière
An Aroma of Coffee
Coach House Press, 1993

This is a beautiful, warm-hearted little book. Set in Haiti in the recent past (30 years ago), its scenes of sun and surf make for envious Canadian winter reading. The texture of its narrative, broken into titled segments and told in the voice of a nine-year-old, recounts an age of innocence filtered through the tragic knowledge of what the last 30 years have brought to that island state.

The author is himself a victim of that history. A journalist in the 1970s when Haiti was under Duvalier, Laferrière went into exile in Montréal after a colleague was found murdered by the roadside. That was 1978. His first book, How to Make Love of a Negro (published in English -- Laferrière writes in his native language, French -- in 1987), was started shortly after.

A second book, Eroshima, was subsequently published. The first two books followed in the tradition defined largely by Henry Miller: working-class poet obsessed with sex and a plethora of spiritual matters. An Aroma of Coffee continues the spiritual meditation, though the age of the narrator reduces the sexual discussion to a few words on the sparks of first love.

On the surface this third book appears to be very different from Laferrière's first two (if Miller's poetics turn you off, you need not fear this book), but common themes unite them, along with the author's deep curiosity and compassion for life.

The action in the novel takes place over the course of a summer's vacation. The nine-year-old narrator is under doctor's orders to rest and he finds himself under the watchful eye of his grandmother, Da. Da is the neighbourhood sage. She sits on her porch drinking coffee. She takes note of the people who cross her path and strikes up conversations with many passers-by.

It is mainly through Da's eyes that we come to know the community, but this is a fragmented story. We are told many points of view, which are often contradictory, and we are trusted to make our own sense of the whole. Which is to say, we are trusted to know that the whole is unknowable, and yet it is well worth exploring.

The book is divided into 38 chapters. Each reveals a particular theme. There are, for example, chapters which bear the titles: Bodies, Sex, Romantic Love, God, Time, Night, and The Mad Cyclist. At the end of the chapter called Time comes this quotation: "Augerean breathed in the aroma of the coffee before he took his first sip. Everything else is just a matter of time."

An Aroma of Coffee won the 1991 Prix Carbet de la Caraïbe. The back cover of the book explains: "for this story's contribution to the poetics of daily life, the symphony of a people's imagery and individual imaginations: the echo of popular song, the freshness of personal experience, the quiet bursts of humour, ever present."

Add to that list the sun and the surf and you have a really good book. I can't wait for Spring!


This review first appeared in Id Magazine (1995).

Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex?
by Dany Laferrière
Coach House Press

If you are a (male) black writer (named Laferrière), why must you write about sex?

Three reasons.

First, because your book will create a sensation, people will buy it, and you will become famous.

Second, because beautiful women, particularly blondes, will want to sleep with you.

Third, because you are a serious writer and you use the metaphor of interracial sex (white women, black men) to explore the power relations created and perpetuated by racism in North America.

But reader beware. Dany Laferrière's latest novel does not answer the question its title proposes. Laferrière is a novelist, not an essayist, and like a good novelist should, Laferriere leaves the answers to the English teachers and other folks foolish enough to pretend to know them.

Why Write About Sex? returns Laferrière to the territory of his 1987 debut, How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. In the same way that the first book was superficially about "how", the second book is not really about "why," though readers should prepare themselves for later books on "what", "when", "who", and "where."

How to Make Love, about a poverty stricken and sex hungry immigrant writer living in Montreal in the early-1980s, propelled Laferriere into the spotlight. A flurry of adversarial encounters followed. And now we have the latest book, which attempts to answer questions like the one included on the cover flap: "Is it possible to be a writer when women stop you on the street and ask you to justify the title of your first book?"

The largest problem with Why Write About Sex? is that readers unfamiliar with How to Make Love will be left wondering what all the fuss is about. If they return to the original text, then good. It's a book worth returning to. But this situation begs the question: if Laferriere explained himself in the first book, what is left to say?

In parts of Why Write About Sex? ,Laferriere comes off sounding like a sore loser. The first book gave the impression that he wanted to be the next Henry Miller; the new book reveals how far Miller has fallen out of favour.

At one point Laferriere has a character challenge his narrator. Feminism has changed everything, he says. But the narrator defers. "No," he says. "Everything is as it's always been."
Sorry, fella. It ain't so.

Large sections of this book, however, take Laferrière into new territory. The "interviews" with Spike Lee and Ice Cube alone are worth the price of the book. The book also showcases Laferriere's "cosmological eye" as he travels across the United States on a bus trip, recounting his observations for a large American magazine.

These passages reveal the best of his journalistic style. The passages are also surprisingly similar to the life depicted by the aforementioned Henry Miller in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, one of Miller's more socially acceptable volumes.

Laferrière has fun with serious questions in this book. The unconventional structure he's chosen allows him to cover a lot of territory, though critics of How to Make Love will likely be unsatisfied by the inclusion of Erzulia, a young black woman and a fiercely independent female voice who breaks into the narrative throughout the book. That's too bad.

The praise he heaps on James Baldwin will hopefully cause lineups at local libraries. The publisher should take note of some missing dialogue at the bottom of page 101.


This review previously unpublished.

The Drifting Year
by Dany Laferrière
translated by David Homel
Douglas & McIntyre, 1997

Down Among the Dead Men
by Dany Laferrière
translated by David Homel
Douglas & McIntyre, 1997

Dany Laferrière burst onto the (English) Canadian literary scene in 1987 with his brilliant debut, How to Make Love to a Negro (released in French in Quebec in 1985). Since then, six new books have appeared, each adding, like the units of Jack Kerouac's ouvre, a new chapter to the unfolding story of Laferierre's "I". The latest instalments, The Drifting Year and Down Among the Dead Men, point in opposite directions away from the middle.

The Drifting Year recounts Laferierre's first year in Canada after he ran away from Haiti fearing for his life. (A colleague in journalism had been murdered.) The book serves as a prelude to the narrative of How To Make Love, though it provides little new information and lacks the frenetic lyricism that made Laferrière's debut so enjoyable.

What is new about A Drifting Year is Laferierre's decision to tell the story in short paragraphs, some of which/are broken up/to look like poetry. It isn't poetry, it's pretentious, and it only irritated this reader.

Laferrière (or is it translator David Homel?) has always had a strong ear for the rhythm of language, and he may one day write decent poetry, but he gains nothing by experimenting with form here.

A Drifting Year ranks with Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy as a nostalgic view of poverty told by a "seeker" narrator. Novelist Russell Smith called Laferierre "above all a diarist" in the Globe and Mail, but unless we are naive readers surely it is more appropriate to label Laferrière, with Miller, as a propagandist for the self-examined life lyrically led.

A Drifting Year is yet another example that Laferrière's ambitions lean in this direction.

Down Among the Dead Men, Laferierre's second new book from Douglas & McIntyre, recounts Laferrière's first return visit to Haiti in 20 years. The autocrats who wanted him dead are gone, and the United Nations' troops patrol the streets.

Laferrière's mother tells him how the cemeteries have been emptied and that zombies populate the country. Laferrière's "I" meets up with old girl friends, old buddies and a handful of voodoo gods. This is a book that could have been a lot better.

Laferrière outlines some of the conflict between Haiti's native mythologies and those of Christendom, symbolized in part by the U.N. troops attempting to impose (Western) order on (Haitian) chaos.

But the conflict is incompletely explored, and it is not embedded in the narrative, which is supplied by Laferrière's largely superficial responses to "the new Haiti."

Where Laferrière's talents come through most is in the interaction between his characters. The portraits of his mother and aunt are precious, and his friends and girlfriends are vigorously drawn. Laferrière, like Miller, is a writer in love with humanity, and, like Miller, his ability to communicate the charisma of his characters is one of his strengths.

The women in Laferrière's earlier book, Dining With a Dictator, remain his major achievement (unlike some of his other women, the sex objects of How to Make Love, for instance). If he can harness his character-building skills, generate a narrative with conflict, and drop any ambition to be a pseudo-philosopher, Laferrière may produce a major work yet.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Book Camp


I missed Book Camp in Toronto on June 6, 2009, but I have caught up a bit online.

More here and here and here and here and here.

John Degen blogged about the event, which led me to another comment on his site: If Dan Brown can't make e-books work, who can? Which reminded me of a similar story involving Stephen King back in 2000.

Has anything really changed? I gotta think, yes.

Book Camp looks like it was a fabulous event -- and part of a vibrant, urgent conversation.

Wither books?

Tish Cohen

A review of Inside Out Girl by Tish Cohen (Harper Collins, 2008).

The Inside Out Girl is Olivia, a 10-year-old with a non-verbal learning disability. But there are other candidates for that title in this book.

It could be Rachel, the single-parent, mother-of-two who is dating Olivia's father. Or it could be Janie, Rachel's 14-year-old daughter who is doing more than questioning her sexual orientation.

Rachel wins the title, in my view, as the protagonist of this novel. It is her emotional transformation that this story charts.

She begins as the publisher of Perfect Parenting magazine, a post she'd inherited from her father and grandfather (a patriarchal line, get it?).

Perfect Parenting provides lots of wholesome advice, but it's also going bankrupt. The real world with its real issues is catching up with Rachel in more ways than one.

I came to this book as a step-father of a nine-year-old with a non-verbal learning disability. I heard about it through an interview the author did, posted online.

An excerpt from that interview:

TSP: Nonverbal learning disability, or NLD, is not a commonly known disability. One of the wonderful aspects of reading good books is that they make us wiser, but also give us empathy hand-in-hand with that wisdom. For those who have yet to read Inside Out Girl, educate us a little about NLD and how you came to choose this particular disability for the main character in your book—the inspiring Rachel Berman, who really does have her insides out in full vulnerability to the often harsh world around her.

TISH: My close friend is a family therapist and once told me her favorite clients are the children with an Asperger’s-like condition called NLD (or Non-verbal Learning Disorder) because of their loving dispositions—naiveté, and utter inability to connect with other children. She loves that they talk too close, constantly knock things over, say the wrong thing, and still get lost on the way to the restroom in an office they’ve been coming to for five years. Often they can’t walk up the stairs and talk at the same time, their clothes are inside out and their lack of motor skills means they can’t brush their own teeth. If you tell them to jump in a lake, they probably will. Frustrating, to say the least.

But they will hug you until you weep. They not only wear their hearts on their sleeves, but on a neon sign above their heads. They see nothing wrong with marching straight up to the meanest clique in middle grade or the bully everyone fears and wrapping themselves around them in a full-body hug. And they cannot for the life of them see why they’re rejected.

I thought about what it would mean to have a child with NLD and the joy and pain that would entail. Then I wondered what it would be like to be a single parent like Rachel, with so much on her plate already, to consider bringing a child with such a condition into her life and family. It seemed a fascinating scenario.

It is. And Cohen has done a remarkable job capturing it.

For more on NLD, I recommend Marcia Brown Rubinstien's Raising NLD Superstars.

But what about the novel?

Well, it made me cry. There is a depth of feeling in this book, combined with deep intelligence, empathy and vision. It calls out "perfect parents" everywhere and reminds readers that difference is what makes us all interesting.

The story zips along, and some may find it a little too full of bad news. But there is also a lightness of spirit and lots of humour.

Read it while you nibble on a bowl of Lucky Charms.